Ethiopia Expat Country Guide
This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).
Increasing numbers of visitors are heading to the Ethiopia to discover its fascinating indigenous tribes, ancient religious sites, and landscapes carved by nature.
One of the oldest Christian nations in the world, Ethiopia is a multicultural and multifaceted destination. The rural environments sustain ancient tribes such as the Hamer, famous for their dangerous bull-jumping ceremony and flamboyant traditional wear.
Pilgrimages to ancient religious sites and national parks saturated in wildlife are a must for travellers, but what really captivates the senses is Ethiopia’s jaw-dropping landscapes. From the verdant peaks of the Simien Mountains, to the sulphur fumaroles of the Dankil Depression, the scenery is moving.
Ethiopia has come a long way since the heart-breaking famine of 1984 and, although culturally rich, the country remains economically destitute. Travelling through Ethiopia can be exhausting but, for those who can manage it, the experience can be like no other.
The geography of Ethiopia can be linked to its climate. The land has various altitudes and, therefore, the variation in climate is traditionally divided into three main climatic zones: dega, wetna dega and kola. Dega refers to cold zones, with altitudes ranging between 2,600 and 3,200 meters. The second zone, weyna dega, is often warm and wet and lies below 2600m. Kola is the tropical zone, found below 1830m in elevation, experiencing average annual temperatures of 27°C.
The best time to visit Ethiopia is between January and March, when uninterrupted sunny days bring regular daily temperatures of 25°C. Wildlife spotting is favoured during this season and the festivals of Timkat and Leddet draw in bustling crowds.
April to September is Ethiopia’s rainy season and delivers humid conditions and stifling temperatures. Due to heavy rainfall, some areas of Ethiopia become isolated due to flooding. August is both the hottest and the wettest month, with temperatures regularly hitting 45°C in the lowlands.
Many visitors also enjoy visiting Ethiopia between October and December. After the rainy season, the countryside is opulent and lush. Furthermore, days are sunny and historical sites and monuments are not overrun with tourists.
A microcosm of Africa, Ethiopia is diverse with tribes and ethnic groups. There are over 80 different groups within its borders and the Oromo people make up 40% of the population. Oromo people speak the Oromo language as their mother tongue and they can also be found in Kenya and Somalia.
The second largest tribe in Ethiopia is the Amhara people. The vast majority live in the central highlands of the country and they are well known for dominating Ethiopia’s economic and political sectors.
The most widely recognised tribe in Ethiopia is the Hamar people. The pastoralist community live in Hamer Woredam (a fertile part of the Omo River valley). One Hamar family tribe, called the Ayke Mukos, were the focal point of Channel 4’s factual television series, The Tribe, which brought the Hamar way of life to westerners.
The Hamar tribe have lived a traditional life for generations and their stylish way of dressing is elaborate and colourful. Women are often bare-breasted, clad in goatskin skirts and adorn their bodies with necklaces and jewellery made of shells, beads and coloured glass.
Hamar women have a very distinctive hairstyle. The women mix a blend of red-ochre clay and animal fat, which is then applied to their hair before styling into very thin plaits all over the head. Men also have unique hairstyles too, often with shaved sections and longer areas so they can secure feathers in their hair easily.
A traveller visiting the country cannot fail to be impressed by the colour and individuality of its plethora of cultures and traditions to be found in Ethiopia. Whether in the flurry of the town, or the serenity of the countryside, there is a strong sense of identity and pride that is visible in all aspects of life.
Religion plays a guiding role in the life of Ethiopia’s people, with a myriad of religions being practised in the country, from Christianity to Islam to animistic beliefs. Accompanying these religions are a wealth of festivals that create high points in the Ethiopian calendar.
Music, dance and imagery are abundant in Ethiopia. The churches are filled with an exclusive marque of picturesque images rich in colour and tradition, while itinerant musicians can be found in every town and village, lightening the mood and providing accompaniment for energetic dances.
Like many African countries, Ethiopia is blessed with a dizzying amount of linguistic diversity. Currently reported as having 88 individual languages, Amharic is the official language but the most widely spoken is Oromo.
Oromo is an Afroasiatic language, which essentially means it is part of a large language family of several hundred language and dialects that are related.
Amharic is a Semitic language and, after Arabic, is the second-most spoken Semitic language in the world. It has been the working language of the Ethiopian government, military and Orthodox Tewahedo Church throughout medieval and modern times.
English is the most widely spoken foreign language and all secondary education in the country is taught entirely in the language. Opinions on English being harnessed in education has split opinions among locals.
Many support the use of the language and urge Ethiopians to improve their methods of teaching it. Others contend that the exclusive use of English after primary education is a threat to Ethiopian identity and supports outdated prejudices about the supposed inferiority of African languages.
Ethiopia’s road network has improved substantially over the past decade, but many roads still remain unsealed and potholes are a constant issue.
There is the option for travellers to rent a vehicle in Ethiopia, but this is restricted to Addis Ababa. All tour agencies in Ethiopia rent 4-wheel drives with a driver. Prices tend to be expensive, but daily rates include insurance, fuel, unlimited mileage and your driver’s wages.
Popular in towns aside from Addis Ababa are bajaj. These are convenient petrol powered tricycles that are extremely cheap. Many of the bajaj drivers refer to tourists as ferertzi and try to bump up prices, but it is best to explain to them you know the prices and negotiate hard.
In Addis Ababa a popular alternative is a minibus. Interestingly the locals refer to these as taxis, which can become confusing. These vans take 10-12 people and can be easily distinguished as they are blue and white.
Ethiopian buses are usually packed with local people and sometimes livestock. With the aisles crammed full of luggage it can be an obstacle course getting on and off the bus. Many travellers prefer to catch the Sky Bus or Salam Bus if it goes to their destination, so that they can rest and travel in relative comfort.
In most towns and cities, visitors can get around safely and easily via taxis. That said, in Ethiopia taxis do not have meters so be prepared to negotiate fares beforehand.
Ethiopian Airlines runs internal flights to towns throughout Ethiopia from its hub at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport. There are daily flights to Aksum, Lalibela, and Gonder however other destinations tend to be serviced far less often. Flights are normally full so it’s best to book in advance.
The airline also offers a ‘Historic Route’ flight circuit which is specifically aimed at travellers. This circuit connects the main tourist destinations of Bahir Dar, Gonder, Aksum, and Lalibela, meaning you don’t have to backtrack through Addis Ababa.
The medical system in Ethiopia has improved remarkably in the last decade, with government leadership playing a key role in mobilising resources and ensuring they are used effectively. At the heart of the sector is the Health Extension Programme, which delivers cost-effective basic services to the millions of women, men and children of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is an example of how a low-income country can achieve improvements in the health sector through sustained commitment and ingenuity.
Despite this positivity, the major health problems of the country remain largely preventable communicable diseases and nutritional disorders.
The biggest killer in Ethiopia is lower respiratory infections. This is any infection that affects the lungs, trachea or bronchi and is usually the result of environmental, bacterial or viral dangers. Second in prevalence are diarrheal diseases, caused by un-safe drinking water and inadequate sanitation and hygiene. For travellers, it is essential to drink only bottled water.
The third biggest killer in Ethiopia is HIV/AIDS, which is directly responsible for a seven-year decrease in life expectancy. Ethiopia faces an epidemic in rural areas and, as a whole, the country is estimated to currently have 1.2 million citizens living with HIV/AIDS.
There are a number of hospitals in Addis Ababa, but only private hospitals offer a reasonable standard of basic care for minor health problems. In the rest of the country, medical facilities of any kind are extremely poor. You should carry a comprehensive medical pack when travelling outside of Addis Ababa.
If you require urgent medical attention during your trip to Ethiopia, dial 911 and ask for an ambulance. You should contact your healthcare insurance company promptly if you are referred to a medical facility for treatment.
The Ethiopian currency is called the Birr and is used by the National Bank of Ethiopia. One Birr is made up of 100 cents. The bank notes are in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 Birr, and the coins are in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 cents.
For travellers visiting Ethiopia, US dollars are the preferred foreign currency, although Euros are gaining in popularity. US dollars or Euros can be exchanged at banks and foreign exchange bureaus, though sadly travellers’ cheques are almost useless in the country.
The use of credit and debit cards is extremely limited in Ethiopia and it is best to bring enough cash as Ethiopian ATM machines do not recognise foreign debit cards.
Education in Ethiopia was traditionally based on the principles of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Secular education was adopted in the early 1990s and the system is continually developing and changing.
There is a huge divide in quality education in Ethiopia. Those children living in larger towns and cities are quite often from backgrounds that can afford private education, and children can attend private kindergartens from a very early age. However, schooling in urban areas, even if government funded, is miles ahead when compared to rural schools.
The teaching profession in Ethiopia is not highly regarded. Due to salary levels, working conditions, class sizes and availability of resources, there is little motivation to become a teacher.
Students, on the other hand, are keen and ambitious, with many wishing to become engineers or doctors. However, attendance levels are often low, particularly for girls. In general, class sizes can often reach numbers of 65 and above (despite high truancy levels).
A huge problem in the Ethiopian education system is a lack of resources. In rural schools, classrooms can often be made of nothing more than tree branches lashed together in a temporary fashion. More often than not, classrooms only have a handful of chalk, a blackboard, and one or two textbooks to share between 50-100 students. Tables and chairs are also a rarely seen luxury, most students sitting on rocks or logs.
Cement flooring, drinking water, toilets and computers are seldom part of countryside educational facilities and as a result the health and progression of students can be extremely stunted.
There are a handful of high quality international schools, mostly in Addis Ababa. Not only do such schools generally offer higher standards of tuition, but in addition they will allow your children to study for internationally-recognized qualifications.
Note that, as in many other countries, these international schools come with a premium price-tag attached. As a result, expats may want to consider trying to include school fees in their remuneration package in order to lessen the financial impact of taking children to Ethiopia.
Food & Drink
The national dish of Ethiopia is called wat. The hot and spicy chicken stew is often accompanied by injera, which is a large spongy pancake made of flour and water. The flour used to make the pancakes is called teff, and is unique to Ethiopia. Wat can also contain beef, lamb, vegetables, lentils, and ground split peas stewed with a hot spice called berbere.
Berbere is made of dried red hot pepper, herbs, spices, dried onions, dried garlic and salt ingredients. Wat is served by placing it on top of the injera in a mesob (large basket tray). It is customary in Ethiopia to eat with your hands, tearing off pieces of injera and dipping into the delicious wat.
Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christians do not eat meat and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays, except for on a variety of symbolic religious days. According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church belief, the faithful must abstain from eating meat and dairy products to attain forgiveness of sins committed during the year, and undergo a rigorous schedule of prayers and atonement.
A delicacy in Ethiopia that often turns the stomachs of travellers is the consumption of raw meat. Kifto and Tera Sefa are both dishes popular in the country which date back to times when consuming raw meat was a necessity for Ethiopian troops. Soldiers that cooked their meat were often sniffed out by the enemy, so the eating of raw meat was an act of self-preservation.
Coffee production in Ethiopia is a longstanding tradition and it is therefore no surprise that the favourite drink of many Ethiopians is bunna (coffee). It is often drunk in unique coffee ceremonies. First the coffee is roasted, then ground and placed in a Jebena (coffee pot) with boiling water. When ready it is then served to people in little cups, up to three times per ceremony.
Other favourites include locally produced tella and tei, which are customarily drunk during major religious festivals, Saints Days and weddings.
Despite Ethiopia being a country opulent in culture, religion and nature, it holds a high threat from terrorism. There have been multiple attacks in Addis Ababa, resulting in fatalities and it is imperative that travellers remain vigilant at all times. Visitors should take particular care when in crowded areas or public places such a transport stations or sporting events.
The Somalia-based terrorist group Al-Shabaab has issued public threats against Ethiopia due to its involvement in military intervention in Somalia. There are credible reports that Al-Shabaab has the intent and capability to attack targets in Ethiopia, including western interests.
Travellers should stay clear of Ethiopia’s Somali region. Kidnapping has become a regular occurrence and, if visiting or travelling through this area cannot be avoided, extra vigilance and precautions should be made.
Sadly, petty theft and mugging is common and on the rise in Ethiopia. Again, it is imperious that those visiting crowded public places, particularly at night, should take particular care. The sub-city of Bole, part of Addis Ababa, has been rife with assault at night and it is best avoid this area after dark.
If driving in Ethiopia, keep doors locked when stationary, park in well-lit guarded areas, and protect the vehicle with anti-shatter film to prevent any glass from being broken during attempted car theft or assaults.
Although rare, there have been cases in Ethiopia of British nationals being arbitrarily detained. There is a risk that this could reoccur, particularly in locations that might be deemed sensitive for security reasons.
Travellers should carry copies of their passport at all times, as well as the contact details of the British Embassy in Addis Ababa. However, it must be remembered that the Ethiopian authorities have often failed to meet international obligations to notify Embassies when foreign nationals have been detained.
Travellers should avoid protests and demonstrations, particularly in Addis Ababa or in any of the larger Ethiopian cities. Some of these events have become violent.
Since the mid-1990s, insurgent groups (some affiliated with terrorist organisations) have clashed with government forces in the Somali region of Ethiopia. This has resulted in local instability, particularly in Oganden, and lawlessness and military activity is the norm. Many foreigners have been caught-up in the violence or specifically targeted and avoiding overnight stays is recommended for visitors.
Places to Visit
Ethiopia is slowly cementing itself as one of Africa’s new gems for travel. It has rich cultural heritage, with seven sites on the UNESCO world heritage list. The diverse landscape, made up of mountains, lakes, rivers and grassland all play an integral part in Ethiopia’s uniqueness. Furthermore, the historic sites and tourist attractions are wide ranging, from areas carved by Mother Nature, to some of the most unbelievable religious sights imaginable.
The Danakil Depression is the northern part of the Afar Triangle. The geological depression is a result of the presence of three tectonic plates in the Horn of Africa and is the hottest place on earth (in terms of year-round average temperatures). The Danakil Depression is also one of the lowest places on earth (100 meters below sea level) and is without rain for the majority of the year; it is completely inhospitable.
The area is dotted with active volcanos, lava lakes and salt basins, but perhaps most impressive is the hot springs. The hot springs creep to near boiling point, emitting toxic chlorine and sulphur-rich vapours and magma-heated brine, transforming the entire area into a retina-burning sci-fi landscape in shades of neon yellow, green and orange.
Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela
Many argue that this site should be one of the new wonders of the world. Lalibela is a medieval settlement that lies in the clutches of an extensive rock church complex. The area boasts 11 monolithic churches, which were built by King Lalibela back in the late 12th or early 13th century.
The churches are favoured for their artistic architecture and, almost eerily, the churches are actually dug into the ground.
The ancient holy city of Harar dates back to approximately 1520 and is the oldest Islamic city in Africa. The city is encapsulated by towering city walls and, boasting 99 mosques, it oozes Islamic culture.
At dusk, local men attract wild hyenas into the city. For generations, these hyenas have scavenged within the city walls and have formed a relationship with the men who feed them.
The Blue Nile Falls
One of the sources of the true Nile, the Blue Nile is the longest river in Africa and channels through Sudan and Ethiopia. The Blue Nile Falls, locally known as Tis Isat, is 400 meters wide and 45 meters deep. The site of the water plunging in the gorge creates spectacular views that rival the Niagara Falls. From Bahar Dar, the Blue Nile Falls can be accessed via a 90-minute bus, followed by a 30-minute hike, but the effort is beyond worth it.
The Great Rift Valley
The huge expansive Rift Valley is adorned with numerous hot springs, beautiful lakes, and a plethora of African wildlife. The valley has a chain of seven lakes and, for animal lovers, the area is paradise and saturated in flora and fauna. The hot springs in the valley are regarded for their therapeutic purposes and people from all over Africa come to bathe in them.